Carrying 4 novels in a duffel bag on a boat to Paris, James Baldwin, age 24, hope to escape racism and live in a creative incubus that allowed him to write; shortly after his arrival he lost those collections. Losing those novels symbolized a letting go of the identity forced upon him by his peculiar country, and embracing the unknown of a country that he would go on to say “Left him alone.” After 4 years of short prisons sentences, sickness, being taken to the mountains in Switzerland, and working through the death of his father “Go Tell it On the Mountain” was finally finished marking the beginning to our cultural icon exploring the mystery of human life. James Baldwin reminds us the importance of being honest about the intimacies of our experience saying:
“One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
Because we have filled our lives with so many distractions the selves we neglect, have forgotten, or repress are hidden inside our aloneness. To realize our aloneness can either cause us to never commit ourselves to the insanity of life, or learn to embrace the flux of human existence. Our aloneness is double-sided for we either block out the world and live from the inside, or we paralyze from the crushing weight of the fear. Baldwin speaking on aloneness being a fact of human life says:
Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality—a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world.
Man has a duty to dive into his spirit and discover the potential of our life; it is our eternal responsibility to make sense from the eternal nonsense through a disciplined analysis of our darkness. So much of our existence is lived externally–working 9-5’s, entrepreneurship, credit reports, taxes, and student loans–, and, when your young, the church is the only space for spiritual dialogue; however, one discovers that beauty can be found in the world, and in order to have a dialogue with divinity one must speak to himself. As we learn to reveal what was once dark, I believe, we become more sympathetic for the complexity of other people; through our revelations people discover more about themselves. James Baldwin makes clear that an honest assessment of our fears, doubts, hesitations, and regrets allow other people to live saying:
There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.
We, as a people, even a nation, cannot avoid our responsibility by ruminating of the superficial, hiding away into our phone, but must live in the present to accept the people we’ve become. We are connected through the same stardust and walking within the universe attempting to live; the deeper we dive into ourselves the more we reveal about human nature. I suppose that every individual, before becoming heartbroken, angry, or losing all his money, believes in the structures of his civilization; but, in response to the constant irritations, soon we discover the necessity of releasing the assumptions and ideals of any given nation. Later in the essay James Baldwin speaks on the importance of the artist raising individual consciousness saying:
It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace—the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think, everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.
Anyone that has ever believed in eternal happiness knows, it doesn’t take long to discover, that one must constantly war with the world inside. Anyone that has ever made love, watched friends reach for religions, psychedelics, drugs, and crystals know that man attempts to deal with himself in a thousand different ways; the artist responsibility is to tell those stories, and allow other people to see the possible outcome of their endeavors. James Baldwin on artists, nations, and men being responsible for meeting the eternal changes saying:
I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.
Reflecting on the relationship between the artist and the nation, Baldwin says:
We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.
A wonderful essay, The Creative Process, by James Baldwin, a man committed to outlining his ideas about right and wrong as shaped by his surrounding environment. He often provided guiding ideas about the nature of art and possibility of humanity.